Graham Hunter: You only live twice, or so it seems, but this La Liga is a one-off

Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Barcelona's Lionel Messi

As if the drama on the pitch wasn’t sufficient, the images around the edge were searing.

Villarreal, Tuesday night – utter nerve- shredding, nail chewing drama while a “relegation” team, glowing in fluorescent yellow, gave the reigning Spanish champions a two-goal start, then humiliated them with a four-goal fightback.

Just as Villarreal went 4-2 up in the 80th minute, unused sub Gerard Piqué plunged his head in his hands – frustration boiling with anger and disappointment.

A couple of feet away from him, the normally dapper, energetic Barça coach Ernesto Valverde wore a face like an Easter Island statue.

A grim, granite-hard stare which wasn’t looking at the action but visualising the impending headlines of doom.

Criticism, vilification, fury.

Valverde looked stunned, desolate.

Yet five brief minutes later, when Álvaro Gonzalez got himself sent off with Villarreal still leading by two goals, everything suddenly changed.

Leo Messi had begun to hint at his threat having come on just after the hour mark. But it wasn’t just that.

Samu Chukwueze, thanks to the red card, had to be replaced by Bonera.

All around the little Argentinian genius, Barça players who’d previously looked petrified by Villarreal’s two lighting-fast strikers, Toko Ekambi and Chukwueze, believed again.

El Madrigal is a beautiful, compact and characterful stadium.

Smack bang in the heart of the community, with the greatest number of season-ticket holders per head of population anywhere in Spain, the stands crowd right up against the beautiful playing surface.

The tunnel area is about the size of a phone booth and not unused to the odd scuffle between opposing staff and players.

By now the drama on the pitch was so tense, so compelling, that every footballer not on duty, either unused subs or those who’d played and come off, were up on their feet.

Benches ignored. Standing room only.

As Álvaro trudged off, moaning, Piqué towered over him and dished out verbal grief.

Villarreal’s “bench”, all standing to try for a better view of one of the greatest matches la Liga has ever seen, suggested the Catalan go forth and multiply.

At that moment there were four minutes of natural time and, it transpired, three minutes of added time left.

Barça initially led via Philippe Coutinho and Malcom.

Then Villarreal unleashed a scoring spree through Chukwueze, Ekambi, Vicente Iborra and Carlos Bacca. Barça’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen also made four top-class saves.

Then Messi won a free kick.

On TV commentary I stated my honest opinion that even if he pelted it home this couldn’t be Barça’s night. And it shouldn’t have been.

However, not only did he score his second free-kick in two matches, he produced cannonball-power and laser-accuracy. Astonishing.

The final act was a goal of ridiculous technique by Luis Suarez with about five seconds left. Four-four. Now Villarreal players wept, their President sunk his face into his hands. The Champions-elect danced on joy and relief. Only in La Liga, I swear to you.

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